What is a Marabou Stork?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
The marabou stork is a South African stork with soft down.
The marabou stork is a South African stork with soft down.

The marabou stork is a South African stork which famously produces a soft down which has been used to trim garments for centuries. Marabou storks are widely distributed across Southern Africa, in both wet and dry regions, and they are common subjects of interest among visitors to the region. In urban areas, the marabou stork is treated as a pest, as the bird can be quite obnoxious and messy.

This bird has a truly unique appearance. Some people refer to the marabou stork as the “undertaker bird,” in a reference to its dark upper plumage and its penchant for carrion. Like other storks, the marabou stork has long legs which facilitate wading, and because it is a carrion eater, it has a bald head, which tends to be bright red. The beak of the marabou stork is heavy and straight, designed for cracking apart carcasses, and the birds have a distinctive inflatable pink sac at their throats.

To say that the marabou stork has a remarkable appearance is being charitable; most people simply call them ugly. They are also extremely large, being among the largest of living land birds, with wingspans comparable to that of the condor. These African storks live in large, messy colonies, often sharing space with other bird species, creating a cacophany which is quite considerable.

In nature, the marabou stork is part of the system used to break down dead animals, returning the nutrients they contain to the earth. Along with scavengers like hyenas and vultures, the marabou stork pulls bodies apart, making it easier for smaller scavengers and bacteria to break the body down even further. This is where the bald head of the marabou stork comes in handy, as feathers would clot with blood and other materials during the bird's scavenging adventures.

In urban areas, the marabou stork can represent a problem. The birds are bold and intelligent, and they don't have much respect for municipal garbage collection. Throughout Southern Africa, these storks can be found tearing through garbage cans, scattering garbage in the streets, and they also wreak havoc in communities which lack organized garbage collections. In addition, like other scavengers, the marabou stork produces very pungent feces, making it a rather unpleasant bird to have around in inhabited areas.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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    • The marabou stork is a South African stork with soft down.
      The marabou stork is a South African stork with soft down.